Portland has shown its best side this month with the monumentally positive outpouring of support after the unexpected arrival of over 300 new asylum seekers from central Africa. The city moved quickly to open the Expo Center for shelter, Preble Street opened its kitchen for preparing meals, the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition (MIRC) and its member organizations brokered volunteer support, interpretation, legal assistance, and cultural orientation, over a thousand Mainers donated goods and signed up to volunteer their time, and hundreds of Mainers together donated over a million dollars to the support funds created by the city and local nonprofit foundations.

The outpouring of support is a testament to Maine’s generosity and decency, but also speaks to social and economic realities. Maine needs immigrants. With its aging population and low unemployment rate, we will only benefit by embracing and supporting people from away who have chosen to move here after fleeing violence. The number of new arrivals over the past few weeks is relatively tiny – less than .005 percent of Portland’s population. When compared with the 7,000 asylum seekers crowded into Moria camp on tiny Lesbos, Greece, one million Venezuelan refugees welcomed at the Colombian border, or the millions of refugees hosted in Kenya or Turkey or Jordan, the burden on Maine is minute. But the benefits of welcoming people to our state are enormous.

Offering support to the new arrivals as they learn English, move into their own homes, enter the public school system, and join the workforce is an investment in the future. The outcome of the unexpected arrival nearly two decades ago of thousands of Somali refugees to Lewiston – a city half the size of Portland – is instructive: Somali refugees initially relied on General Assistance to help them get settled and then very quickly began opening businesses, graduating from college, buying homes, renewing abandoned farmland, running for public office, and building robust and thriving community organizations.

To ensure the future success of the newest arrivals and the success of Portland as a city welcoming of immigrants, we need to do three things.

• First, we must acknowledge the incredible efforts and expertise of Maine’s immigrant-run organizations, such as MIRC, the Congolese Community of Maine, and the Angolan Community of Maine, who know exactly how to provide guidance and support to help immigrants find their footing in a new land. They have been working round the clock on a voluntary basis to provide everything from translation to transport, and their efforts need to be compensated. Some of the donations flowing into the city must be directed to support their work.

• Second, the city must ensure transparency about the expenditures of funds donated to the city to support newcomers. People donated with the expectation that their contributions were going directly to support asylum seekers, and we need to be assured that these donations will be used to help those living in the Expo move toward housing, language learning, and independence. Transparency about fund expenditures inspires trust and reflects democratic practice. A careful accounting of expenditures can provide a model for sustainability and scalability for supporting future arrivals.

• Third, we need to make sure municipalities take advantage to the changes in the General Assistance rules that allow for the program to be used to assist people while they wait for their identification documents to be processed by the government. The asylum seekers in Maine are lawfully present because they were vetted at the border and allowed to enter the U.S., but cannot receive General Assistance in Maine due to a rule change made by the previous administration. Portland should enact a rule that would allow General Assistance funds to be used to house people in neighboring communities, where rents are lower.

Affording the families living in the Expo Center a little more help so they can get settled in housing of their own and gain English language skills seems simple in comparison with the extraordinary journeys through South and Central America that they endured to get here. The money has been donated already – let’s make sure it gets put to use by spending it where it will matter the most.

 


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